MIT scientists are exploring what they say could revolutionize the nuclear power plant, both in terms of safety and cost. The floating offshore nuclear power plant could be constructed in a centralized shipyard, towed five to nine miles offshore, and then anchored in place.
This power plant would utilize existing oil and gas rig technology and contain living corridors, a helipad, and an underwater transmission line to carry the power to population centers. Contributing to its success, the offshore floating nuclear power plant would utilize both lightwater nuclear reactor technology and offshore platforms used for oil and gas exploration and extraction — which helps reduce risk by using mature technology.
Allegedly, tsunami waves and earthquakes wouldn’t be concerning in deeper water, unlike the vulnerability of the Fukushima power plant. In addition, the ocean can be used as a nearly infinite heat sink, making it virtually impossible for a meltdown to occur, unlike onshore plants where there is no ensured long-term heat sink.
If an accident did occur offshore, it would ensure greater safety and radioactive gases could be vented underwater, thus population center onshore would remain safe. The reactor would be located deep underwater, allowing for passive cooling by seawater, even during a potential accident.
It is getting increasingly difficult to site nuclear power plants, because of both safety concerns and the required proximity to a water source for cooling. Waterfront property is typically more expensive, augmenting the project development costs of a nuclear power plant. Proximity to population centers is ideal.
“The ocean is inexpensive real estate,” says professor Jacopo Buongiorno, from MIT. His team believes this fact will help boost the economic performance of the plant. It is likely that coastal communities, however, will be opposed to a nuclear power plant floating a few miles offshore; public concern for nuclear power plants has increased since an earthquake and tsunami in 2011 caused an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex.
The concept of an offshore nuclear power plant is not new. The idea was first raised by power utility companies in the early 1970s. The Russians are constructing a 70 MW nuclear reactor aboard a ship, the Akademik Lomonosov, which could aid in Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration. This project however has been plagued by financing problems and delays.
In the end, it is important to question if nuclear is the answer to our low-carbon energy needs. If it is, then exploring ways to potentially make it safer are essential, and perhaps looking offshore is a smart next step. It does seem like unintended consequences are likely however. Even if this offshore floating nuclear power plant utilizes two mature technologies, the exact impact on the oceans are yet to be determined. If nothing else, the heat from the plant would have an impact on wildlife. Although professor Jacopo Buongiorno states that the plant would be economical, it seems the operating costs of an offshore platform would be greater and the threat of a terrorist attack concerning.
Although the “not in my backyard” sentiment is strong with nuclear power plants, thus it is doubtful that coastal communities will view a floating plant much differently. Even if this concept is a good idea, it seems unlikely to manifest anytime soon.
For more information on the project, check out the video below.
Illustration courtesy of Jake Jurewicz of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering
Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Building & Design, Triple Pundit, Urban Farm, and Solar Today. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.